By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO — On the subject of high-tech approaches to opera, the South African theater and opera designer Johan Engels once told an interviewer that his function was “merely to suggest the dots of an idea,” and that it was up to each audience member to connect them into what they wanted the image to be. Although the designer was open to nifty tools that made old ideas look new again, he insisted that the audience’s imagination was “more vivid than anything I can put before them.”
Engels had just completed the initial design work for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s upcoming cycle of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, of which Das Rheingold is the prologue, when he died in late 2014 at age 62. Dedicated to Engels’ memory, the Lyric’s nimble new production of Das Rheingold was unveiled on Oct. 1, directed by David Pountney and conducted by the company’s music director Andrew Davis. (Das Rheingold runs through Oct. 22. Die Walküre and Siegfried are slated for the next two seasons, and in April 2020 comes Götterdämmerung, along with the Ring in its entirety.)
British designer Robert Innes Hopkins is carrying his late colleague’s designs forward, but it is the Rheingold, with Engels’ characteristically eclectic array of visual aphorisms, that keeps the audience guessing. Some tricks do literally come out of a bag. As the show began, haggard women (the foretelling Norns from Götterdämmerung) lugged their suitcase onto an empty industrial-era stage. The scene initially seemed to divert attention from the music’s first whispering undercurrents of E-flat churning up from the orchestra’s depths. But soon the concept of the production took hold. The Norns pulled wide swaths of blue silk from the suitcase, conjuring the River Rhine’s vast watery realm with the aid of kabuki-style helpers in full view of the audience.
A mesmerizing aerial ballet ensued in the form of an underwater flirtation between the Rhinemaidens and the grasping, lusting Nibelung dwarf Alberich. The Rhinemaidens teased Alberich from their perches on cranes that are actually movie-camera dollies, each operated by a member of the Lyric Opera stage crew and two onstage actors, to variously manipulate the platform heights and move the units around the stage so that the Rhinemaidens appear to swim, circle, rise, and fall in sync with each other and the music. The trio of young singers — soprano Diana Newman and mezzo-sopranos Annie Rosen and Lindsay Ammann — achieved a beautiful siren blend while delivering some high-flying humiliation that drove Alberich crazy and set him on course to steal their gold.
In a typical example of the time-shifting and place-shifting that Pountney’s approach allows, Wotan and the other immortal gods are just hanging out when we first see them in the opera. Their furniture is stacked around the set, pending the completion of Valhalla, Wotan’s new palace. Various iconic items signifying “empire” are piled high in the storage bins — a perfect Versailles topiary here, an ancient Mesopotamian ram’s head there, a Greek capital or two. What’s a treasure for, if not to become somebody’s collectible? Save that spear, a golden apple, and the eye patch, too.
Davis moved the musical elements along at a welcome swift and spirited pace. The Lyric Opera Orchestra, enriched with extra brass, sounded particularly fine. There were 91 musicians in the pit, plus four percussionists on the stage in costume among Alberich’s miserable laboring Nibelungs, creating piercing anvil effects.
The electrifying new Alberich on the scene is bass-baritone Samuel Youn, in his American debut and role debut both. He came across as youthful, burly, angry, and given to explosive bursts of voice when expressing particular fury at the unfairness of his lot.
Youn’s Alberich was conniving, too, still gaining in cunning even as he was cornered, cursing the future owners of the ring as he yielded its power. Youn is well known at Bayreuth and highly sought in other European houses. It was a pleasure to hear him match wits with Wotan’s slick-talking, fast-thinking Number Two — the fireball Loge — a role that fits Slovakian tenor Štefan Margita like a glove. These two should be allowed to go at it for 15 rounds.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens, who has sung Alberich at the Met, was undertaking Wotan for the first time, a huge task with many possible ways into that complex character.
Owens took the tack of the philosopher-king, reflective and brooding, giving off the vibe of a tyrant in late-middle age accustomed to ordering people around but unaware he had lost the strength to back up his threats. It was a tragic, ruminative arc; some of his most beautiful singing revealed brilliant tenorial overtones in the upper register. I found it deeply thoughtful and touching despite a lack of robustness in the home stretch. The physical challenge of stamina and pacing in an arduous new role may have been a factor.
In a beautiful performance, the German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, as Fricka, made a sympathetic case for the long-suffering wife of Wotan, for whom romantic sparks still fly. And mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau was glorious in her American operatic debut as Erda, Wotan’s forbidding oracle.
Grounded in a storyteller’s fanciful touch, the production overall was musically strong and theatrically savvy. Among the novel ideas, Fasolt and Fafner — the giants who build Wotan’s new palace for an agreed-upon price that Wotan does not intend to pay — appear as huge puppet heads, with hands and arms affixed to high towers, the actual singers perched somewhere partway up. The puppet heads were so big that it was actually disconcerting to hear German basses Tobias Kehrer and Wilhelm Schwinghammer sing without amplification. It’s not that their voices weren’t stentorian. They were. It’s just that they sounded underscaled in this context.
The super-sizing of the puppets also led to some Kong-style humor when it appeared that Freia – the goddess whom the giants abducted — developed a total crush, obviously requited, on gargantuan Fasolt, in a delicious twist played out by soprano Laura Wilde for all it was worth.
The costumes of Marie-Jeanne Lecca were flamboyantly tongue in cheek as well. Alberich donned a Liberace jacket once he renounced love and became rich on Nibelung gold. (Check out the Magic Flute that Lecca did with Engels at the Bregenz Festival in 2014 for similar flights of fancy.) And Wotan was accoutered like a military general, but maybe from an older war.
When his modern sidekick Loge rode into view on a snazzy three-wheeler, attired in red duds and dripping disdainful asides, you could tell what this smug firebrand thought of his boss.
Although the pick-up sticks that purported to represent Valhalla in the sky weren’t very impressive, resembling something more like a two-bedroom cottage than a celestial palace under construction, history may look kindly on the Lyric’s proud reference to its own palace worthy of the gods: The final approach to Valhalla, at the very end of the opera, was lined with images of the triumphal scene from Aida, as depicted in gilded glory on the beloved Jules Guérin fire curtain at the Civic Opera House.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.